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The prophet foretold, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”Something happened long ago, in the shadows of an obscure desert town in a far corner of the Roman Empire. It seemed ordinary at first:
The birth of a baby.
At first, only his parents knew how extraordinary this was. All parents think their babies are extraordinary, of course.
At first, no wise men came, no shepherds, no disciples, no adoring masses. No one was there but his parents.
The gospel writer Luke tells us this baby was born in a stable; born not into wealth, not into power, not into social status or aristocratic inheritance.
This baby, like so many tens of millions of babies then and now, entered life in relative poverty and without much of a chance.
The survival of this baby, like tens of millions of other babies then and now, was not so certain at first.
This baby was born out of wedlock, to Jewish parents from the hill country of Galilee, a land occupied by a foreign power, the Roman Empire.
The mother was barely a teenager; her name was Miriam, or Mary. She was to have an arranged marriage with a man named Joseph, but she became pregnant – and not by him – before the wedding.
That fact put her in grave danger because her pregnancy was a violation of the law.
Joseph was a carpenter, and in those days carpenters made simple implements like wooden bowls and mallets.
Carpenters like Joseph led a meager hand-to-mouth existence.
Joseph stuck by Mary when he didn’t have to. He could have had her stoned to death for dishonoring him, but instead the two fled their hometown of Nazareth.
The gospel writer gives this a polite patina by saying they were going to Bethlehem to register for a census. Except that historians tell us there was no census. Mary and Joseph were probably fleeing the judgmental eyes of their relatives.
Getting to Bethlehem was not easy and they were lucky to survive the journey. The road goes over hills and robbers hide along the way.
They had nowhere to go in Bethlehem; either there were no relatives in Bethlehem or none would take them in.
And so they had their baby in a stable – a barn. Other legends say they birthed this baby in a dark cave, and Bethlehem is riddled with caves.
Caves also are where people are buried. To be born in a cave was not a sign of regal distinction. To be born in a cave was a sign of someone living in constant fear.
There was absolutely nothing outwardly extraordinary about this birth.
Not at first.
Then, the gospel writer tells us, the angels started showing up.
The angels came to shepherds in a field, at night. The angels didn’t come to kings, aristocrats and high priests. The angels came to the shepherds.
Shepherds were an even lower class than carpenters. They lived outdoors, slept in caves, and lived with sheep, and they smelled.
And these particular shepherds had the night watch. These shepherds to whom the angels came this night were the lowest of the low.
The angels told them something extraordinary was happening:
The birth of a baby in a stable, and this baby would be the messiah, the One who would bring them salvation and freedom, the anointed One of God they had longed for.
How could that be?, these shepherds wondered. This baby? Here?
The shepherds were terrified. We are but lowly shepherds, they said, and this baby is in a barn.
This is not what we expect. This is very different than anything we have been told by every teacher we’ve ever heard.
The shepherds went to see for themselves. They found the baby lying in a hay trough.
And then the lowliest of the low understood what this was about.
It was about them.
They expected a king on a throne tossing off judgments like thunderbolts, but found a healer who would lead a life of simplicity, prayer and truth.
They expected a God of war. They got the Prince of Peace.
Later people would try to explain this with complicated theologies, flavored by ancient Greek philosophy, medieval mysticism, modern scientific inquiry, post-modern skepticism.
People would cover this baby in many layers of words down through the ages. He would wear a lot of swaddling clothes.
But tonight we have a baby in a manger, only this baby. We are at the beginning of the story of a very frightened poor family long ago, and a naked baby in a stable.
This messiah whose birth we mark tonight is different than anyone, or anything the world expects.
He comes to set people free in their lowest places, in their lowest moments, and to bring unconditional love and unlimited healing that lasts beyond this world. He comes with no conditions, no strings attached.
What better way for God to tell us this than with a helpless baby, born in the lowest caste, in the most obscure place on earth?
The world of power and politics is turned upside down by this one birth. Human expectations, human economies, human politics is upended.
The story of Jesus – his birth, his life, and his death on the Cross, begins this night.
The story of Easter begins on this night, too – the story of how Jesus rose from the grave to appear to his followers and give them strength and courage against all human odds.
Christmas is this great bookend with Easter, and truly the two must be seen together for they are inseparable.
Those who first saw the Risen Christ of Easter continued to write this story in the way they lived afterwards. The first Christians called this new religion simply “The Way.”
Their story is also our story. We continue to write this story of Christmas and Easter each day of our life.
This way of life, this way of faith, is not just about the afterlife. It is about this life. It is about how we live right now, here, today and tomorrow.
This Christmas night, I would invite you to find ways to deepen your faith, to set aside a regular time each day for prayer.
I would invite you to renew your faith by being in this faith community once again.
If you don’t have a regular community of faith, and you live here in Charlottesville, think about joining us here at St. Paul’s.
If you have been away from this church for a while, make this your first day back.
And ask yourself this:
How is God tugging at your heart tonight? What acts of kindness and generosity are calling you in the new year?
What do you want to strengthen in your life, and what is dragging on you that you need to shed?
Bring it to prayer. Have courage. Act.
And then let’s get to work together in the new year: We have people feed, the sick to comfort, children to raise, and a hurting world needing every single one of us.
This way of life will change everything in this world if we let it.
This way of life begins once again tonight with the birth of a baby long ago.
And the prophet foretold, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
May you have many blessings this Christmas Night and always. AMEN.